Scientists have discovered the world's oldest wine - a vintage produced by Stone Age people 8,000 years ago. The find pushes back the history of wine by several hundred years.
New discoveries show how Neolithic man was busy "bottling" and deliberately ageing red wine in Georgia, the former Soviet republic. Although no liquid wine from the period has survived, scientists have now found and tested wine residues discovered on the inner surfaces of 8,000-year-old ceramic storage jars.
Biochemical tests on the ancient pottery wine jars from Georgia are showing that at this early period humans were deliberately adding anti-bacterial preservatives to grape juice so that the resulting wine could be kept for longer periods after fermentation. The preservative used was tree resin, which contains several bactericidal compounds, says Professor Patrick McGovern of the University of Pennsylvania Museum, the scientist leading the study of ceramics from the 6th and 5th millennia BC. The wine may have tasted something like retsina, the resin-preserved wine still popular in Greece.
The development of pottery in the Middle East and the Caucasus regions also seems to have played a key role in the production of the first wines, especially vintage ones. Ceramic containers were able to preserve wines far better than the plaster or leather containers that had previously been used. Plaster was far too porous and reactive, while sealed animal skin or leather bags could not be used to store wine for sufficiently long periods. Examination of the pottery shards has also revealed the large carrying capacity of these early wine jars - around five litres.
Professor McGovern's study has also yielded extraordinary evidence of the cultural - and probably religious - importance of early vintage wine. While examining Neolithic Georgian pottery jars used to store and age wine, he discovered a series of tiny, highly stylised relief images of Stone Age people celebrating the vine. The ancient world had a long tradition deifying the source of wine, and Professor McGovern believes he may have stumbled upon the prehistoric origins of what much later evolved into wine cults such as those of the Greek god Dionysus and Dionysus's Roman equivalent, Bacchus. He has recently published his ground-breaking discoveries in a book, Ancient Wine: The Search for the Origins of Viniculture (Princeton University Press).
Eight thousand years ago, the archaeological site where the oldest wine jar shards were found, Shulaveri in Georgia, was a small, densely populated hill-top town. Archaeological investigations have revealed several houses containing wine jars. Intriguingly, the area lies adjacent to the region associated with one of the world's first recorded drunks, the biblical figure Noah, whose first non-religious act after the flood was to plant a vineyard.